HILLA, Iraq (Reuters) - The local official drew a line on a map slicing through farmland and desert southwest of Baghdad whose Sunni Muslim residents have been displaced by fighting, and then pointed just south to the site of the most revered Shi‘ite shrine.
The line marks the course of a 45 km (30 mile) trench designed to safeguard the Shi‘ite holy city of Kerbala from Islamic State’s radical Sunni militants who seek its annihilation, said Babel provincial councilman Hassan Fadaam.
“As long as Daesh is in Anbar, this trench will be used to protect the residents of both Babel and Kerbala, which will become a launching point to liberate (Anbar),” he said, using a pejorative Arabic acronym for Islamic State, the Sunni militant group also sometimes known as ISIL or ISIS.
Many Sunnis, however, fear the trench is not a temporary security measure but just one more example of how they are being expelled from sensitive areas in central Iraq, which they say the Shi‘ite majority wants to control.
The trench and an accompanying berm, now more than half built, wind through traditional Sunni tribal lands whose civilian population has been caught in the crosshairs between Islamic State insurgents and military offensives by Shi‘ite militias and Iraqi security forces.
“The goal is for the Shi‘ite militias to cleanse the Sunnis from the area,” said a sheikh from al-Aweisat, an agricultural region about 40 km southwest of Baghdad that has been cut up by the trench.
“This is a separation line between the Sunnis and the Shi‘ites,” he told Reuters.
During the last year of war, tens of thousands of people, most of them Sunnis, fled this stretch of farmland straddling western Anbar province, which Islamic State controls and uses to cross to its Syrian strongholds, and Shi‘ite areas to the east and south in Babel and Kerbala provinces.
Fadaam told Reuters traffic will be funneled through guarded entry points. Watch towers will be constructed every 500 meters along with security cameras and barbed wire, he said, although budget constraints have delayed those installations.
An earlier proposal to build a concrete wall was dismissed as unnecessary and symbolically problematic.
“Topographical change is happening. This has become clear,” said Atella Mahdi al-Hemos, a moderate Shi‘ite sheikh from Babel, predicting the trench would lead Iraq towards partition.
“You won’t enter without a badge. The badge ends up becoming a passport”.
Islamic State’s advance last year increased speculation about the splintering of Iraq into Shi‘ite, Sunni Arab and Kurdish regions, but irregular faultlines between the groups would require mass population transfers for that to happen.
Shi‘ite officials and tribal leaders deny the trench, which is three to five meters deep and three to four meters wide, will bring about such a reconfiguration.
“It has no sectarian dimension. It only has a security dimension: to protect the people, Sunni and Shi‘ite alike, from the destruction of Daesh,” said Sadoun Muhsin al-Kilabi, a sheikh from Mahmudiya, 20 km east of the trench.
He told Reuters that security forces lacked the numbers to secure all areas, making “defensive lines” like the trench a tactical necessity.
Iraq’s army nearly collapsed last summer despite receiving billions of dollars in support during the U.S. occupation that ended in 2011. It is now complemented on the battlefield by a mix of Shi‘ite militias and volunteer fighters.
Proponents say the barrier is required to secure military gains and population centers in the south, a stronghold for the Shi‘ite majority that has dominated the country since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 toppled Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Muslim.
“After the liberation of Anbar, the barrier will be removed completely,” said Fadaam, the local official.
Islamic State moved into Anbar’s two main cities of Falluja and Ramadi a year ago, then expanded control of large swathes of the province during last summer’s dash across the Syrian border.
Some of those gains have been rolled back, but political divisions have undermined further efforts, and the eradication of the ultra-radical Islamist group from Anbar’s vast desert territory could realistically take years.
In the meantime, the trench may help determine how central Iraq is repopulated, with physical partition becoming a reasonable option.
Shakir al-Essawi, city council chairman of Amiriyat al-Falluja, 20 km west of the trench, said local protests have managed to freeze the digging for now. But he fears what could happen if the trench is completed.
“Maybe in the future they will offer land in another place and ask people to move there and they can build houses,” he said.
“They will forget about (this) area and it will become part of Shi‘ite Babel”.
Additional reporting by Saif Hameed; Editing by Peter Graff